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Essay: Collaboration, Storytelling & Dance

Equality Is Not Sameness

What is collaboration? Very simply it is two or more equals working together to solve something, or work towards a creation. Personally I love collaboration, especially in this global age, because of the different perspectives and ideas everyone has. To me there’s always something unexpected that happens in this setting that is beautiful, that makes a work stronger and better than I could have ever imagined.

I’m an artist and storyteller working on a graduate degree in interdisciplinary practice, and have over ten years professional experience in Interior Design, but have never taken a dance class. I specifically took this class to learn about what modern dance is, the vocabulary of dance, and how dance can tell stories. When I was assigned to work with three dancers on a collaborative dance project for my Dance As A Fine Art class, we started the conversation by asking each other about our backgrounds and our favorite dance styles. We had to come up with a five to seven minute dance within five class periods and at the end perform it in front of the whole class. My collaborators and classmates were all dancers who’d been dancing since they were very young. I learned that they loved structured dance and faster movement in a mixture of ballet, jazz and 80s-90s hip-hop, whereas I loved improv and interpretive dance and slow or sustained movement. Our backgrounds and orientations differed greatly from, Asian to Middle-Eastern to Anglo Saxon, from Military to Ballet, from Gay to Non-Binary.

Our first challenge in the group was to figure out what our theme was, or if we wanted one. I personally wanted to see how the topics I’ve been focusing on in my work told a story through dance. Since I’d already been making art about the gender binary and feminism, I tossed out the former as a theme. Two of us were interested, one was indifferent, and one was adamantly against it. After some discussion trying to understand what the trigger was — so we could avoid it and move forward as a team — I tossed out the theme of feminism. Majority of us found something we could identify with and we followed a rabbit hole of thoughts before arriving at equality is not sameness. One person didn’t have a strong opinion, but we made sure to give that person equal opportunity to speak and we asked several questions of inclusion, ultimately we respected that person’s impartiality during the ideation phase.

All of us agreed we wanted music, from there we were able to give a deeper meaning to our dance. One of us had a stronger opinion on the type of music, so we listened to different music around that genre. I used my knowledge of music’s effect on human psychology to help us determine the ideas behind first and second halves of our performance. We started slower, moody, slightly gloomy and melodramatic, then transitioned to faster, up-beat, and hopeful. The idea was to depict where we currently are as a society vs where we could and should be as a society.

Our first song was Elegy for the Arctic by Ludovico Einaudi. Our second piece of music was Song of the Caged Bird by Lindsey Stirling. I deferred to the dancers in their strength for movement and dance as they began to choreograph. I used my strengths in philosophy and design to help our movements align with our theme.

When we further developed the choreography it became apparent there were some moves I simply could not do, not just because of my non-dance background, but also an injury that literally prevented me from making some of the moves. Rather than see it as a drawback, we used it as a strength within our piece, and we purposely made it part of the dance depicted by myself and another dancer. A metaphor for society seems to be steamrolling everyone into sameness, and those who cannot keep up struggle or get left behind.

Our second challenge was: time. We had only a few class periods to create our final dance. We found a way to collaborate within the restriction by divvying up our five minute performance into group and solo pieces. By giving each of us a solo roughly 45 seconds long we could create them at home and spend class time on the group portions which became manageable. We practiced once outside of class when we put together the whole performance and worked out the transitions.

Through out the process we continually spitballed ideas, tried out different things, communicated and sometimes failed. We collectively found our voice and our dance took form. As we continued to choreograph the dance we layered in movement for movement’s sake, emotion (and lack thereof), unison, canon, counterpoint, movement motifs, levels, tempo and solos. Anytime we felt lost or stuck, we came back to our theme “equality is not sameness.” Our interpretation of this is most noticeable in the transition from our rigid and structured group dance in the beginning, to the flowing, individualistic solos in the middle, back to individuality within the group structure. The message being, equality is needed to form a balance between the individual and society, and to form a balance between various individuals. Equality means honoring and respecting the differences we bring to the table, because it is our differences that make us unique, strong, and resilient, not our sameness.

I feel like collaborating on this dance was how we embodied our theme on a deeper level. In my opinion, everyone can learn the art of collaboration by embracing Equality Is Not Sameness.

Video Courtesy of the University of Houston’s Dance Program 2018


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